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Game of the Week Preview: Alabama at Auburn

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Regardless of the backdrop or setting, or even what may be at stake, the Iron Bowl is an annual national spectacle.

Overview -- The season-ending injury to Alabama superstar Tua Tagovailoa is one of the leading storylines entering Saturday's game. His unfortunate hip dislocation and fracture, suffered in the Crimson Tide's win at Mississippi State, sent shockwaves throughout college football. Enter Mac Jones. Now with two starts under his belt, the suddenly-prominent signal caller will step into the spotlight in the nation's most high-profile rivalry; all with 5th-ranked Alabama vying for an at-large bid into the final four. Slotted just outside the national top 15, homestanding Auburn awaits as a physical and battle-tested foe. Boasting a win over Oregon, the Tigers lost to LSU and Georgia by merely a combined ten points. A challenge and an opportunity alike will soon welcome two unique stories at quarterback, the former reserve Jones and Auburn's true freshman Bo Nix. One way or another, the outcome of this game will come with national implications.

Why to Watch -- It's the Iron Bowl. Period. Regardless of the backdrop or setting, or even what may be at stake, Alabama-Auburn is an annual national spectacle. The history, passion and tradition around this series, a rivalry dating back to 1893, makes it a leading part of college football's ever-expanding legacy. In terms of this weekend, Saturday will be an interesting referrendum for both sides. Can the Crimson Tide win without Tua Tagovailoa and possibly springboard into the playoff? Might the Tigers get over the hump in yet another marquee matchup? How Mac Jones performs in a hostile environment at Jordan-Hare Stadium will be one of the leading stories from the final week of the regular season. Plenty of fans around the country, specifically those in places like Athens, Georgia, Norman, Oklahoma and Salt Lake City, Utah, will be rooting for an orange-and-blue upset.

Keys for Alabama

1. YAC for Mac -- Aiding the cause of quarterback Mac Jones on Saturday will be the nation's best collection of wide receivers. In DeVonta Smith, who has 1,120 yards and 13 touchdowns, reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and Jaylen Waddle, Alabama's perimeter playmakers are all next-level talents with unrelenting home run ability. Their collective efforts after-the-catch against Auburn will be critical. When it comes to make-you-miss ability and downfield separation, the Crimson Tide's receivers are as good as it gets. Ruggs averages 19.4 yards per reception, while Smith stands at 18.7 and Waddle at 16.3, respectively. Smith and Jeudy, 19.3 yards a catch a year ago, have combined for 22 touchdown grabs. Already, Jones has been eager and effective in utilizing quick throws to the aforementioned quartet. More of the same will be critical against the Tigers as Auburn will undoubtedly look to make Jones win the game. If he can consistently get the football out early and find his receiving options in space, Jones will be able to mitigate some of the pressure on himself and stay ahead of the chains. Keep an eye on running back Najee Harris in the short passing game as well as he has seven scores through the air and is averaging over a dozen yards per try.

2. Force Auburn Over the Top -- With NFL talent and experience at every position, the strength of this Alabama defense is the secondary. The Crimson Tide rank second in the SEC, giving up just 184.4 yards per game and that is with opponents often throwing the football in an attempt to play catch-up. Alabama is allowing foes to complete just 57.9% of passes at merely 5.9 yards per attempt and is tied for the league-lead in interceptions with 15. Auburn's talented but still-developing true freshman signal caller Bo Nix is currently completing 57.6% of his throws at 6.8 yards per try. Though a gritty playmaker with dual-threat mobility, Nix has struggled in the passing game against top-tier defenses; the Crimson Tide may have the best defensive backfield he has faced. Alabama must make Nix, with a 48.3% completion percentage and five passing touchdowns compared to six interceptions against ranked teams, win the game downfield. As usual, the success of Gus Malzhan's offense starts at the line of scrimmage with the running game. If the Crimson Tide can slow down JaTarvious Whitlow, D.J. Williams, Kam Martin and Nix on the ground, it would match an unproven element of the Tigers' offense against a proven commodity for Alabama. 

3. Continue to Win the Turnover Margin -- Remarkably, Alabama leads the nation with a plus-17 turnover margin and is the best in Power Five football by a wide margin. The Crimson are in the statistical-black in every single game this season, except one -- the loss to LSU. Both in terms of protecting new quarterback Mac Jones and attacking Auburn's true freshman Bo Nix, Alabama has to continue to win where it matters most. For Jones, the task, on paper at least, is simple; manage the game, don't take unnecessary risks and remain aware at all times. Though having never played in a spotlight even close to the one he is soon stepping into, Jones has thrown just one interception on 90 career attempts. Protecting the football, thus not giving the Tigers extra chances and momentum, will be one of his main priorities. There may be opportunities for the Crimson Tide to force Nix into mistakes. With a combined 22.5 tackles for loss, edge-rushers Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis will be the tone-setters for an aggressive, ball-hawking defense.     

Keys for Auburn

1. Make Alabama's Offense Work -- A dominant defense, starting right at the line of scrimmage, gives Auburn a chance to win every football game it plays. Even against Alabama, the Tigers can control the game in the trenches. Starting with 6'5'' tacke Derrick Brown and company up front, Auburn must make the Crimson Tide earn all of their offensive production and limit big plays and long conversions. The more new quarterback Mac Jones has to do, the better the chance Alabama struggles to find consistency and the better the chance the Tigers have at forcing a big mistake. Facing the Crimson Tide's wide array of offensive playmakers, the pressure will be on Auburn defenders to tackle well in space. Alabama will move the football; the Tigers simply must make that process a deliberate one. Fundamentals in scheme and play will both be critical. The adage "nothing cheap, nothing deep" will need to be Auburn's defensive creed in pass coverage. In forcing Jones to check down through his progressions, the Tigers percentage of success, from sacks to interceptions, goes way up. Chunk gains would obviously make the situation facing Jones much more managable; Auburn, which recently held Jake Fromm to 13-of-28 passing, has to make Jones, and the Crimson Tide offense, uncomfortable and get them out of sync.     

2. Get and Keep Nix in Rhythm -- Auburn must make it a priority to get quarterback Bo Nix in a groove right away, then commit to keeping him active and tuned in. The true freshman has showed that he can rally a team late as Nix was the catalyst for the Tigers' comeback win over Oregon and nearly led Auburn back against Georgia. Can he put together a complete game against elite competition? It might benefit Nix if the Tigers look to throw the football some early, an attempt to establish initial momentum in a contest where every play will be magnified. A mobile signal caller, Nix seems to be most effective when all aspects of his impressive skill set are used. Moving him around some, even implementing designed quarterback sneaks, might also help Nix settle in. While getting the football to number one option Seth Williams is an absolute must, big plays from Eli Stove and Anthony Schwartz are also needed. Auburn can't be predictable on offense against Alabama as the Tigers have to find a way to keep the Crimson Tide guessing. Nix's confidence and consistency will be critical so Gus Malzahn should look to get him directly involved, productive and proficient, early.

3. Start Strong -- At home, energy and momentum await as assets for Auburn. The entire tenor and tone of the afternoon could very well be determined on the first couple of possessions. The Tigers must get out to the early lead. Doing so would allow Auburn to dictate the ebb and flow of the contest with its offensive tempo and running game and dramatically increase the pressure on Alabama quarterback Mac Jones and a team, given the circumstances, that may be pressing in trying to win by multiple scores. In terms of the psychology of the game and the adjustments situations could prompt, the difference in a touchdown lead and a touchdown deficit, in this one, might be very significant. If the Tigers can force Jones, who has never played on a stage like this, to play catch-up, their powerful defensive line would likely only be more effective. The idea is for Auburn to force Jones and the Crimson Tide out of their comfort zone, a goal an early lead just might achieve. A rocking Jordan-Hare Stadium is a tough place for anyone to play, especially a quarterback suddenly adjusting to a starting role. 

Position Advantages

Quarterback: Auburn -- It's interesting given that Bo Nix is a true freshman, but Auburn has the experience edge under center. Nix has already played four top 15 teams this season, including a close contest with Georgia a few short weeks ago. He has scored 20 total touchdowns and carries himself with a very real moxie. Mac Jones has played well in limited action and appears well-prepared, as well as you can be, for his Iron Bowl debut.

Running Back: Alabama -- Najee Harris is poised to top the 1,000-yard mark soon as he has 942 yards and ten rushing scores. Notably, he also has seven touchdown catches. Expect Harris to be a featured playmaker, even more than usual, on Saturday with Mac Jones in for Tua Tagovailoa. Auburn has very good depth with JaTarvious Whitlow, who is elite when healthy, D.J. Williams and Kam Martin. The Tigers always want to run the football.

Pass-Catchers: Alabama -- In DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and Jaylen Waddle, Alabama has the best collection of perimeter playmakers in the country, in fact, one of the best groups in college football in recent memory. Smith ranks second in the SEC with 13 receiving touchdowns. Seth Williams is a big-play number one for Auburn.

Offensive Line: Alabama -- Only Georgia has allowed fewer sacks than Alabama, with eleven. Tackles Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood have done tremendous work blocking on the edge for the Crimson Tide. Add in Auburn's Prince Tega Wanogho and Jack Driscoll and this will be a showcase of talented tackles.

Defensive Line: Auburn -- These are two of the premier defensive fronts in all of college football, but Auburn is the nation's best. Massive tackle Derrick Brown, seemingly a top ten lock for the upcoming NFL Draft, demands constant double teams in the trenches, while end Marlon Davidson ranks number one in the SEC with 12.5 tackles for loss. Raekwon Davis is a powerful and prototypical 3-4 lineman for Alabama. 

Linebackers: Alabama -- The combination of Anferenee Jennings and Terrell Lewis off the edge makes the Alabama defense go. Jennings is tied for the SEC lead in sacks with 7.5, while Lewis is one of the national leaders with 16 quarterback hurries. Their collective athleticism may limit the scrambling ability of Auburn quarterback Bo Nix. Keep an eye on the heady K.J. Britt in the middle of the field for the Tigers.

Secondary: Alabama -- There are big names all throughout Alabama's defensive backfield. From Xavier McKinney to Trevon Diggs, the Crimson Tide have playmakers at every position. Jared Mayden is actually tied for the SEC lead in interceptions with four. Hybrid defender Jeremiah Dinson is an x-factor who gives Auburn a versatile playmaker who can play downfield or near the line of scrimmage.

Special Teams: Alabama -- With Jaylen Waddle, Alabama has been the nation's best on punt returns: 24.67 yards per try, three touchdowns. Auburn, correspondingly, ranks last in all of college football in punt coverage, giving up 18.54 yards per return. Keep an eye on Waddle. Joseph Bulovas has stabilized the kicking game for the Crimson Tide.  

Coaching: Alabama -- Nick Saban has been so good and historically-dominant in big games. The work offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has done, with both Tua Tagovailoa and now Mac Jones, also speaks for itself. Sarkisian versus Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will be a good schematic matchup to watch. As has often been the case for Gus Malzahn, he enters a big game with plenty of people talking about his job.   

Intangibles: Auburn -- The injury to Tua Tagovailoa obviously leaves plenty of questions left to be answered for Alabama. Beyond just that, the pressure is on the Crimson Tide to not just win, but win big enough to impress the College Football Playoff committee. Auburn, importantly given Mac Jones' relative inexperience, has homefield advantage. Two years ago, the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide on the Plains. 

Players to Watch

Alabama: Mac Jones, QB -- It simply has to be Jones. The nation, having just really learned about him a few weeks prior, is now talking about Jones as much as any other player in college football here on rivalry week. The bright lights will undoubtedly be on him. How Jones can handle the pressure the Iron Bowl brings, literally and figuratively, will help determine the fate of Alabama's season. Interestingly, his completion percentage, albeit on just 77 overall attempts, is the same as Tagovailoa's this year at 71.4%.

Auburn: Derrick Brown, DT -- Brown has been one of the game's best disrupters, a distinction set to be a difference-maker this weekend. Big games have often been where Brown has been at his best; Brown recorded a combined seven tackles for loss, four sacks, two fumble recoveries and two pass deflections in outings against Texas A&M, Florida, LSU and Georgia. He also creates opportunities for those around him. Job number one for Brown on Saturday will be getting after Alabama quarterback Mac Jones.  

Final Thoughts

The intensity the Iron Bowl brings is always something. Obviously, Mac Jones is the biggest question mark. Couple his confidence and command to date with Alabama's famed rotation of playmakers and Jones, even against a ferocious Auburn defensive line, is in position to be successful. Nick Saban has always handled times of potential adversity well and, as mentioned, this Crimson Tide team has the cohesion and talent to absorb the inexperiences of Jones into a larger gameplan. The Tigers will play inspired football, with stars like Bo Nix and Derrick Brown having some signature moments. In the end, however, Alabama wins a close contest with balance and consistency. Alabama 27, Auburn 20

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports